Wilson: On Human Nature

Anyone who seeks a refresher on why people behave as they do, I can recommend reading this book – an enthusiastic review.

Some books cannot be summarized because they are too dense in content. On Human Nature by biologist Edward O. Wilson is a spectacular example of that category and one of the most insightful pieces that I have read in my entire life. Although the book is already a few decades old, an excellent time to read the book is... now.

My expectations from inspecting the table of contents were rather dim: Some authors may set out to explain aggression, sex, altruism, religion, and hope on roughly 100 pages through a mix of personal anecdotes, ideology, and convenient scientific results and leave the reader with a well-known “so what”. But upon flipping through the book, it quickly becomes evident that this piece is different.

The book was first published in the 70 and given its historical context, Wilson starts by defending a variety of his propositions on the foundation of the scientific method. Although the 60s may be widely considered a free-minded period in history, people weren't free from ideology and group thinking – talking about genetic predispositions for certain behaviors wasn't en vogue. In this light, the book may be considered radical or revolutionary, not for its sake but rather to present what is.

After this initial positioning, the thread progresses through how intelligent organisms developed, how genes spread, and how certain traits emerge. All this will later serve as a foundation for the stuff that the reader came to see. And while you might think that the real deal starts during the second half, quite the contrary is true: I remember putting down the book multiple times with a sigh, shaking my head, and thinking, "Did I just read that?" in disbelief of the precise and concise line of argumentation.

To give an example, here is how Wilson summarizes studies about the typical life cycle of formalized slavery:

Large-scale slavery begins when the traditional mode of production is dislocated, usually due to warfare, imperial expansion, and changes in basic crops, which in turn induces the rural free poor to migrate to the cities and newly opened colonial settlements. At the imperial center, land and capital fall increasingly under the monopoly of the rich, while citizen labor grows scarcer. The territorial expansion of the state, by making the enslavement of other people profitable, temporarily solves the economic problem. Were human beings then molded by the new culture, were they to behave like the red Polyergus ants for which slavery is an automatic response, slave societies might become permanent. But the qualities that we recognize as most distinctively mammalian – and human – make such a transition impossible. The citizen working class becomes further divorced from the means of production because their aversion to the low status associated with common labor. The slaves, meanwhile, attempt to maintain family and ethnic relationships and to piece together the shards of their old culture. Where the effort succeeds, many of them rise in status and alter their position from its original, purely servile form. Where self-assertion fails because it is suppressed, reproduction declines and large numbers of new slaves must be imported in each generation. The rapid turnover has a disintegrating effect on the culture of slaves and masters alike. Absenteeism rises as the slave owners attempt to spend more time in the centers of their own culture. Overseers come increasingly into control. Inefficiency, brutality, revolt, and sabotage increase, and the system spirals slowly downward.

I am sure that others have summarized this common progression equally short but I would not be surprised to see a whole book on the same subject and failing to reach the same conclusions. This book reminded me of when perfection is achieved: When there is nothing to remove without changing its meaning.

On top of being precise and concise, the book impresses with fine language. It feels like a conversation with a well-mannered, eloquent, and humorous stranger. Another quote from the chapter Religion:

Although the manifestations of the religious experience are resplendent and multidimensional and so complicated that the finest of psychoanalysts and philosophers get lost in their labyrinth, I believe that religious practices can be mapped onto the two dimensions of genetic advantage and evolutionary change.

Let me moderate this statement at once by conceding that if the principles of evolutionary theory do indeed contain theology's Rosetta stone, the translation cannot be expected to encompass in detail all religious phenomena. By traditional methods of reduction and analysis science can explain religion but cannot diminish the importance of its substance.

Elegant, isn't it? I could have picked another example of the superb style but the touchy topic of religion serves as a handy lead into a word of caution: The text is not for those who prefer to stick with what they already know, and you might change your view of some human interactions you encounter. But what more could you expect from a book on human nature?

If you decide to read it, you can look forward to a gentle introduction to (hardly debatable) genetics, a scientist’s take and well-researched argument on why people behave as they do, an enriched vocabulary, and possibly a few more books you want to read thereafter. It took me several weeks to get through as the content is dense and arguments often build on one another. But I wouldn’t have turned it down for anything else and it made it straight to my pile of books labeled “read again”.